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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Day School Dilemma

Dear Shifra,
For a non observant family, what are the pros and cons of sending your children to a Jewish Day School, a great public school system, or a religious program through a synagogue such as afterschool Hebrew School/ Sunday School?


Readers: Before I respond I should note that “Jamie” sent along a pretty comprehensive background detailing her family’s religious status, background and point of view on this issue. Although I will not post it here I will refer to it as needed.

Dear Jamie,
Your question is a tough one but I will try to address as well as I can. I’m sure my readers will also have plenty of good advice to share based on their own experiences…
After reading your email several times it seems to me that you are craving a sense of (Jewish) community both for yourself and for your children. Since your husband seems open to the idea of joining a synagogue, I think that it is a very important step. This will give you and your children an opportunity to meet other Jewish people participate in Jewish activities and maybe even get a few Friday night dinner invitations.

While after-school or Synagogue “Sunday school” type programs seem like the ideal compromise the truth is that they will never give your child the depth or breadth of knowledge and feeling that a day school education will. I say this as a Sunday school teacher myself, and the daughter of two (former) day school teachers. When your Judiac studies are merely extracurricular, shoved in between a full day of school and soccer practice they will never be viewed with the same priority as a full (or half day) of devoted school hours would be. In addition it is a simple matter of time: there is just no way to cover Hebrew language, Tanach, Jewish history, philosophy etc… and impart a loving connection to all of it in just 2+ hours a week.

So what can you expect from a day school education?

That’s a hard question because every school is different. I’m not sure if you live in area where you have many choices or just one but clearly just because a school is “orthodox” doesn’t mean it’s a good school or a bad one.
Ideally in a modern orthodox day school, your child will learn to read, write, and speak Hebrew, learn about Jewish history and the State of Israel, learn Tanach, and maybe some Talmud, to the point where they will be able to start to figure things out on their own and have a good understanding of basic Jewish laws and customs and how they are derived. In addition hopefully there will be some character development as well- teaching children to respect one another and treat each others as they would like to be treated.
In addition, of course, they would also have a secular education comparable to (or better than) a public school education only more compressed due to time restraints. Clearly this is not the case for all MO day schools but it’s usually their goal.

Being non-orthodox in an orthodox school is an issue. But again it depends on the school. The Jewish elementary school I attended was split about 50/50 orthodox vs non-orthodox so everyone really felt at ease. Today things are more polarized (in most east coast day schools at least) so I can’t say that it will not be an issue. Belonging to a synagogue that you identify with though can help here too allowing your child (and the rest of your family) access to Jewish life that is in your comfort zone.
The bigger issue for me would be sending my child to a school that I could not identify with ideologically. Part of a day school education (in an Orthodox school) is also a religious indoctrination. An orthodox school is really compelled to teach that the word of the Torah is law, as this is a major pillar of Orthodox belief. Judiac culture and religious practice will not viewed as two separate matters. It’s more than likely that eventually your child will feel a bit torn between to worlds – hearing one thing at school and another at home.
This leaves you two options: either to find a school that appeals to your ideologically or to be open to the possibility that your child may eventually be interested in taking on some additional observances at home as well as at school. No one wants to feel that they are putting their child into a situation where they feel conflicted so it’s something to consider for down the road…Lastly there is the issue of tution. Yes, I know it’s a killer. Frankly I don’t know how we manage it ourselves but somehow we do. It’s our priority. We don’t drive a new car, or go on vacation, or eat out much and somehow we get by. I’m very happy with how my children are doing in school and how much they enrich our home-life with what they have learned. All I can say is to me it’s worth it.


At 12:21 PM, Blogger Little Wolf said...

Thought I would add to this. I grew up in a community with out a day school. My education was through Hebrew/Sunday school. At this point I wish that I had gone to day school. I find myself lacking in a lot of knowledge and trying to teach much of this to myself as I get older.

There are a lot of people who don't feel this way. I guess the question in my mind is how important Judaism is to you, and how you wish to pass it on.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My education was through Hebrew/Sunday school. At this point I wish that I had gone to day school. I find myself lacking in a lot of knowledge and trying to teach much of this to myself as I get older.

Ditto the LW. It's nice to know I'm not alone here.

Jaime - Are there any Conservative or nondenominational day schools in your area? Would you consider sending your child there? Students at such schools generally have a broader spectrum of religious observance at home (or at least are willing to admit it).

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Air Time said...

My kids are religious and go to a MO school that has a number of non-religious kids in it.

From my perspective, it really depends on the parent's motivations. We have a number of parents who are not interested at all in learning about religion. Rather, they want their kids in a Jewish school, and our school is more willing to financially accomodate people than the local conservative school.

The problem is these kids are learning something in school and getting no support at home. One kindergarten mother in my sons class commented that she hoped her son wouldnt come home wanting to eat kosher.

If parents genuinely want their kids to get a jewish education, and are willing to learn more about their heritage themselves, I am all for it. If parents just want a jewish environment to dump their kids instead of sending them to public school, I am on the fence about it.

And one final thought. If you do send your kids to an orthodox school, or a school with orthodox kids, don't be offended by people asking Kashruth questions when you have a birthday party.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger BBJ said...

I agree that a Conservative school, or a nondenominational one, may be better for you. If you prefer one of the Orthodox schools in the area, or don't have a choice, talk to them. Make it very clear who you are, and what you want for your child. Don't pull punches. Their reactions will give you a good sense of how this will go. If they're relaxed, it will probably be an okay fit.

Also--prepare to talk to your kid about any sense of disconnect they may feel. If I were to send my kids (as yet theoretical) to an Orthodox school, I would want them to be very clear that we do things differently at home for a reason, not out of ignorance. I would want to talk to them about the Conservative approach to halacha, and why I think it is good, our family's history and practice, and my opinions and ideologies about Jewish identity and observance. I'd also want to make it clear that they are free to make their own decisions about their level and kind of observance, to some degree as children, and entirely, as adults. Think about what you want to tell them when they say "How come we don't?"

If you decide against the day school, some synagogues and JCCs have terrific supplemental programs. I agree you won't get the immersion of a day school, but you can still find places with good programs. Look for a shul that provides a variety of activities, especially for young adults. A supplemental program should not be a bar mitzvah farm. If you see people in their late teens becoming adult members of the congregation, that's a GOOD sign.

Mostly, I would say, think about what you want your children to have, and go where you think they're most likely to get it. Good luck!

At 10:31 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

I agree with Shanna that a non-denominational Jewish day school might be best for your situation. There are all too many stories of children who go to frum day schools and get indoctrinated with views far different from those of their parents, and this difference between parents and children can threaten to tear apart the family. (I used to date a girl who had come out of a family situation like this.) While I, of course, am frum, and would be thrilled with the prospect of your kids' becoming frum, I realize that you are probably not particularly interested in this prospect. In a non-denominational school, if it is a good school, your children will be presented with a number of different views toward Judaism, and will be able to choose, at least when they are older, whichever approach they wish. I do not feel that setting little kids against their parents is an honest method of making people frum.

Despite all that I have written, though, I think that sending your children to a Jewish school-- any Jewish school-- is NOT the way to foster a Jewish identity in your children. Jewish identity must be passed down at the hearth, the way that it traditionally has been passed down. If you want your kids to have Jewish identity, YOU must first define your own Jewish identity. Personally, I do not really understand how there can be any kind of "secular" or "non-religious" authentically Jewish identity, so I would encourage you to look into frumkeit (though open-minded frumkeit) and observance of the Jewish commandments (mitsvoth). However, there are other people out there, who claim to understand non-religious approaches to Jewish identity, so if that's what you want, you might consider speaking to such people. In any event, you must start with YOURSELF, not your children. Start considering strengthening your own Jewish identity today.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Great comments guys: practical, honest, realistic, helpful...
I'm impressed!

Jamie- I think you have of food for thought here in terms of what you want for your children and for yourself.

Mar Gavriel has a good point, if you want to create a feeling for Judiasm within your home and family don't wait for your kids go out and make it happen. Even J-blogging can be a good form of support and ideas to that end. I wish you the best of luck with whatever you decide.

At 1:53 AM, Blogger ... Is the Window to Our Soul said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. They are very helpful and supportive. I will forwarded this to my other half and hopefully he will begin to understand why the path that I want for our children is a day school education vs. an afterschool activity. As for a conservative or secular day school, there is only one (there are 3 orthodox) and it's tuition is way out of our league, even with financial assistance. And yes, my daughter has come home asking why we don't keep kosher and why we don't go to shul to daven. It's challenging and I didn't expect it so soon but I know we can work through it. I just wish her questions didn't make my husband so uncomfortable or his family. Thanks again.

At 2:08 AM, Blogger ... Is the Window to Our Soul said...

p.s. Just in case you were wondering my daughter just finished kindergarten at one of the orthodox schools (a very small mo one whose parents and faculty are very accepting of non-orthodox families) and hopefully she will be continuing on. But I have feeling if she doesn't go now, then when she is older, my husband may change his mind. My daughter is very friendly and affectionate, and jokingly, I often tell my husband that when she is ready to go to middle school, she will be going to the yeshiva to avoid any distractions of boys....this is our equivalent to Catholic school! : )

At 8:20 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

Shifra, what a great service to your readers! ah, what choice of identity should we bestow on our children? and, how will the identity we seek to bestow on our children change our own lives? i have often heard that we really learn something when we have to teach it. and i have to agree that how we live with our children is a vastly important teaching. to deal with this can really can upset our comfort zone of living, including our finances. may jaime, her husband and children, and all of us be blessed with a wonderful education as we and our tribes move from generation to generation.

At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd add that Sunday/afterschool programs are not terrible. If the school is part of a synagogue and you are actively involved in the synagogue community, then Jewish education will be a priority. If 6 hours of Hebrew school a week is the sole extent of Jewish activities, then the value is less.

You'll obviously learn less in an afterschool program, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. A child needs to know what tools and resources are out there and gain enough knowledge to be able to decide where Judaism will fit into his/her life. Learning doesn't stop after high school and if that value is taught, not having a full day school education is ok. Of course afterschool programs depend on both the teachers and the motivations of the students. Not all towns have rigorous afterschool programs.

On the other side, not all day schools teach a full secular curriculum. Don't assume a day school rigorously teaches science, math, and non-jewish history. Many do, but it's worth asking.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger christopherjackson9758 said...

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